An Experiment in Making My Own Yogurt

It started when I tried to do what, on the surface, should be a simple thing.

Buy yogurt.

Call me fussy, but I didn’t want low-fat milk, sprinkles, sparkles, fruit on the bottom, chocolate-chip laden yogurt: I just wanted yogurt.

I went to what I thought would be my best source: the price-gouging faux ‘good-food’ store – Whole Foods.

I grudgingly shop there as they are the only source of a few things I can’t find anywhere else in the area, like a mayonnaise that is NOT made with soybean oil, but rather expeller-pressed canola. I don’t think either oil is necessarily great for you, but I think the expeller-pressed canola sucks less than the soybean oil.

Anyway – this post isn’t about mayo – right? So I am at Whole Foods and there is an entire wall of yogurt. And in that wall, where there must have been 20 brands and 50 varieties…I could find ONE yogurt that didn’t use low-fat milk.

Let’s applaud the winner: Traderspoint Grass-fed, Organic, Plain Yogurt. This is good stuff. I put my own vanilla extract and a drop of EZ-Sweetz and it’s a great treat – it’s not induction-friendly as it runs about 9 carbs per serving, but if you’re not shooting for a ketogenic low carb regimen, it’s not a bad source of those extra carbs.

But even still…I suppose manufacturers have concluded – perhaps rightly so – that Americans really don’t like yogurt – we like the idea of yogurt.

Apparently, Americans are still terrified of fat, considering the vast selection of low-fat yogurt. I thought that mainstream science had poked enough holes in the ‘low-fat-is-good-for-you’ theory that there would be at least a few full-fat yogurts to be had.

But no – we first have to tinker with the milk by removing the fat – then adding dry milk to improve the flavor of the watery stuff left behind.

Even my full-fat winner has the dry milk added – this is because of the other reason American don’t like yogurt: real yogurt isn’t as creamy as what you’re typically sold in the stores. The typical yogurt probably has thickeners like cornstarch, pectin, gelatin or guar gum to give it a thicker consistency.

I’m not necessarily sure that this is all that bad – does a small amount of these things pumping up the creaminess really create an abomination? I’m not sure – but I’ve been on a ‘kick’ to try to explore what ‘real food’ is.

Real food I define as not needing ‘tweaks’ by food technologists and not requiring ingredients that traveled in chemical containers.

Yogurt is milk and bacteria and fermentation. It is impossible to buy this.

So – on a whim – I decided I’d like to try making it myself.

I found a website that talked about it – lost the link as usual – but this site led me to a site – now I was in an entirely unknown world.

The first thing I had to understand was the difference between mesophilic cultures and thermophilic cultures. The difference is that the thermophilic cultures need to be heated to create the yogurt, while the mesophilic can be made at room temperature.

I chose the room-temperature type for 2 reasons:

  • The lack of heat supposedly preserves more of the active enzymes in the yogurt, which supposedly is good for you – but I have no clue if this is really true. This comes straight from the raw-foodie playbook and I’m not sure that – at least at their most militant – they have their heads screwed on tight.
  • And the real reason – I’m lazy. The thermophilic  cultures sounded like a lot more work.

So of the choices, I bought the Viili style.

To a dope like me, you’d think that bacteria is bacteria – no! The descriptions of these things remind me of a cross between dog breeds and wine reviews.

Here’s an excerpt from their website:

Originating in Finland, Viili is a thicker yogurt which thrives on cream. It is also known as Viila and is similar to other yogurts such as Pitkapiima, Viilipiima, langil, taette, tatmjolk, langmjolk and skyr. Perfect for use in parfaits or in place of sour cream in recipes. Of all of our room-temperature (mesophilic) yogurt cultures, Viili has the thickest consistency (viscous, almost jelly-like) and the most mild taste making it our most popular yogurt culture particularly among customers switching their family off commercial yogurt. Please note, this is a non-ropey variety of Viili. Our Viili yogurt does not have a ropey texture but rather a more gelatinous, jelly-like texture.  Viili contains the following active lactic acid bacteria: Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar. diacetylactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris.

You gotta love a sentence that can work in the words ‘Pitkapiima, Viilipiima, langil, taette, tatmjolk, langmjolk and skyr‘ – I am assuming that these words come from a Scandinavian language – they could easily pass for the names of Ikea furniture.

So I plunk down $15 for some starter culture – and feel a bit stupid: “Why am I doing this again?”

Oh yeah – this is what I do to amuse myself. I don’t follow sports, don’t watch TV, don’t fish, or collect stamps – I guess I have to do something to keep me off the streets.

In a few days, I get a small brown envelope containing a smaller envelope with a yellowish powder – maybe a teaspoon or two.

The instructions explain that you need to make a first batch of the stuff to be the ‘starter’. Once you have this, you can use the starter within a week to make the actual yogurt – just mix 1 tablespoon of the first batch per cup of milk. Then from that batch you can make more yogurt and so on, ad infinitum. You are instructed to use half the packet of the stuff in 1/2 cup of milk, stir to be sure it’s mixed in well, then keep at a temperature between 70 and 78 degrees.

That’s a kinda precise temperature, as I found out. I mixed some of this stuff up in a 2 cup Pyrex container and covered with a coffee filter kept in place with a rubber band, as directed by the instructions – the culture needs to breathe.

I then left it on top of my fridge as the instructions helpfully noted that the temp. is a pretty strict requirement and most countertops can run a bit cooler and be drafty – both of which can screw up the environment for the little critters.

It said to ‘keep an eye on it’ and that it should be done when the milk no longer sloshes around like milk is wont to do – in about 24 – 48 hours.

I checked it after 12 hours on the fridge and it still looked like nothing happened. I checked the temperature with a pretty accurate meat thermometer and if read like 68 degrees – too low. So where to put it ow to ensure a temperature a few degrees higher – but not too high?

The instructions suggested that electronics sometimes give off enough warmth. No one would call me short of electronics, but because of location, I only had one piece of electronics that might work: my Verizon FIOS set-top box on top of my bedroom  TV.

So now I feel really committed: with a Pyrex container of milk sitting on my set-top box in the bedroom, I will look like a real fool if this stuff doesn’t work – and perhaps I look like a fool if it does.

By the 24th hour, it looks like I’ll be a fool with a container of bad milk in my bedroom as nothing had happened by then. I had got the temperature up to somewhere slightly north of 78 degrees, and was wondering if I had killed the culture.

I checked the milk – it smelled OK, and still looked like milk, so I put the coffee filter back on and went to bed.

That night I friggin’ dreamed about the stuff, which shows you just how much a little milk had become a minor obsession for me.

In the morning when I checked it, it was a very different stuff: it has a thin layer of clear liquid on top, a chunky semi-solid middle layer, and a thicker layer at the bottom.

Was this yogurt? Or something more sinister?

I checked the instructions, which felt lacking at this point. In troubleshooting, it mentioned that if it is kept at overly warm temperatures the yogurt culture will die and the mixture will separate into curds on the top and whey (the clear liquid part) on the bottom.

Mine had it on top and bottom – is that OK? No answer.

Then in another part it mentioned that if you want a thicker product, you can drain away the whey.

So…when the yogurt fails it separates into curds and whey. When it’s successful, it also separates into curds and whey.

How the  HECK am I supposed to tell the difference?

I smelled the stuff…OK, I guess – nothing horrible – at least not what I’d expect of milk sitting out for nearly 2 days, but then again, I don’t make it a habit to go around sniffing old milk.

I made the assumption that it was OK, so followed the next step, which was to put it in the fridge for 6 hours to stop the culturing process.

Fast forward 6 hours. I take the stuff out. It looks like a thin yogurt and has a layer of the watery curd, which I toss. Some people use this whey in cooking and pickling, but I have no use for it now. I’m left with a thin version of either a yogurt or a toxin – I can’t tell which. It smells OK – a slight cheesy smell, which is not abnormal in really good yogurts though completely purged in most of the highly processed crap they pass off as yogurt.

There was only one thing to do now: taste it.

I gave it a taste.

It tasted like a plain yogurt, which is to say a mild, slightly cheesy flavor.

I’ve had the experience of tasting sour (or rather rancid) milk – that almost electric unpleasantness as it hits the tongue and makes you rush to spit it out wasn’t there. It appeared I had produced the real thing.

So now that I had (at least I thought I had) a started batch, I immediately created my fist batch of real yogurt by taking a tablespoon of the goop and mixing it with a cup of milk. This too got the coffee filter treatment and went on the set-top box.

I was left with what might have been a quarter cup of the starter. It didn’t say if you could eat it or couldn’t eat it – the instructions only warned not to eat any yogurt that didn’t taste good – pretty obvious advice probably put in by their lawyer – like the advice in my camera instruction manual that warned that if you hold the camera near your eye and adjust the viewfinder, you could poke yourself in the eye.

I suppose they don’t have any means to screen out litigious morons from buying their products, so perhaps this is needed.

Anyway – it was the weekend and I wasn’t going anywhere – if there was a time to give myself food poisoning, this would be the most opportune time in my schedule.

So as I typically do, I added a dash of vanilla extract and a drop of EZ-Sweets, and ate the stuff.

Thinner than a store-bought yogurt – but good. Again, a mild, slightly tart, slightly cheesy flavor I’ve encountered with other high-quality yogurts – nothing out of the ordinary.

Geez – it looks like I pulled it off!

As to the new batch on the set-top box, the directions said to wait only 12-18 hours – a much shorter time than the initial batch. Seemed to me that I’d have only room temperature milk in that time, but instead, it firmed up nicely and I had another cup of yogurt. Damn – this works.

I’ll probably make a few more batches to be sure I got this down pat before I offer up some to my family.


10 thoughts on “An Experiment in Making My Own Yogurt

  1. Good for you! I’m too much of a pansy for making my own, so I buy it from the Lebanese store down the street.

    (P.S. In the event you are interested in hearing about some progress, I’m down just over 34 lbs. since 7/26/10.)

  2. If you find yourself looking for store bought yogurt, you might want to try Stonyfield Organic. They make a whole milk plain yogurt. I’ve buy it in the large tub size. I also believe Danon makes a whole milk plain yogurt, but it does have other ‘unnecessary’ ingredients in it.

    Kudos to you though for braving making yogurt. It really is a simple process. We generally teach it in the general microbiology course for undergrads, as it is a great lesson in edible microbiology.

    1. I must confess that on that particular day, the store was out of stock on a number of items. The Stonyfield ain’t bad, as well as the full fat Fage yogurt, that shaves a few grams of carbs from each serving.

      Yes – the yogurt making is interesting – it brings a greater understanding to what the heck one puts their mouth.

  3. I’m always frustrated when I read the labels on most yogurt. I don’t need this to be low-fat, people!

    But, I have heard from a number of sources that yogurt is a rare food where the actual carb count is always LOWER than what is printed on the label. Apparently, the bacteria metabolize the lactose in the milk for us, which ends up reducing the sugar content before we eat it. Magic! So some of those better brands you mention may actually end up being induction-friendly.

  4. I make my own yogurt in my crockpot. I use storebought as the culture starter (usually full fat Stonyfield), and once I have some homemade, I can use that as the culture starter for a while. After about 6 sessions, I need to buy more storebought.

    I suppose my method would be thermophylic, since it uses the heat of the crockpot, but it works like a dream. I make about 2 quarts a week, one which I drain to make greek yogurt because it’s lower in carbs (for me) and one which I leave for the rest of the family.

  5. I make over a gallon a week but I use a Waring Pro yogurt maker – with that much yogurt at stake, I don’t trust other methods that much.

    I have such a large culture collection in my freezer that I am having to freeze dry the stuff… we’ll see how that works out.

    My last experiment was with an 18 bacteria culture – had to mix it with a Chobani yogurt as it wasn;t looking too good by itself.

    And yes, my wife and I eat one heck of a lot of yogurt – I make the Greek yogurt type where I strain off much of the whey…. whey to go, as they say!

  6. dude, white mountain yogurt made in austin is sold at whole foods there and they have a choice of whole milk or non fat versions.

    that is not the only brand of yogurt at whole foods in austin made with whole milk. i can’t speak for whole foods in other towns, only for the whole foods stores in the center of the universe, where they originated.

    you are so right about the fat thing! any fool can see all the obese people walking around with sugar water and french fries. besides throwing away healthy milk fat, i regret that whey is often being thrown away after making strained yogurt.

    i experiment with combinations meso and thermo cultures, yet incubate at meso temperature. the thermo bacteria eventually catch up (I THINK) even after put in fridge. the variables remind me of cheese making. i think the public doesn’t realize most of this. i used to heat plastic gallon jug of whole milk in microwave, but it’s faster to set the jug in deep metal pot and add water and heat on stove. don’t worry, it won’t melt plastic and it doesn’t release plastic ‘flavor’, as long as u don’t leave it unattended. better loosen cap just in case.


  7. by the way, Dannon whole milk yogurt does NOT have any ingredients listed except ‘cultured whole milk’. soooo much misinformation on the internet, but thank God we are free to have it.

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